Writing Well – A Necessary Skill


By: Carolyn L. Barkley

My father was an English teacher and a poet, so writing well was a necessity in my house as I was growing up. I graduated from high school in the 1960s which means that I was taught phonics in elementary school. I’m one of the dwindling few who actually know how to diagram a sentence. I could read a paragraph written by any one of my staff members and tell you, within a few years, when he or she graduated from high school. Now that I’m retired and spend my “leisure” time editing books for authors of genealogical works, I find that the inability to construct a readable sentence is not limited to those who graduated from school within the last twenty years. It is an affliction shared by all ages. The incorrect use of capital letters and apostrophes, split infinitives, misspellings, and awkward syntax – they conspire in a concatenation of literary irritation as I read the text of a manuscript.

Even as we have an obligation to research professionally, documenting and analyzing our work, we have an equal obligation to share our work with others with well-reasoned, well-constructed narratives. In order to do so, it is important to understand how to write well. Here are a few tips:

1. Good grammar and a good writing style are essential no matter what you are writing, no matter for whom it is intended. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone comment that they are “only writing for my family, not something professional.” It doesn’t matter who the intended audience is; it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a research summary, a family newsletter, or a scrapbook journaling entry. You should write well. Make sure you write in a consistent voice (first or third person). Write active sentences such as “John Doe and Mary Smith witnessed the marriage of James Brown and Matilda Green” rather than “The marriage of James Brown and Matilda Green was witnessed by John Doe and Mary Smith.” Use present and past tense appropriately and consistently throughout your writing. Reread your work frequently. Have you used two (or more) words when one is more succinct? Have you used unnecessary clichés? Does your work flow smoothly when read aloud, or do you get lost in parenthetical comments and wordy transitions? Your work reflects your proficiency as a genealogist and writer. Your family, or any audience you’ve identified, deserves a quality product.

2. Be aware of grammar rules. I keep the Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2003) beside my desk, and it falls open automatically to one of several often-consulted sections. Do you have a question about the use of numbers in a narrative? Are you unsure about the rules for capitalization? Should you spell out the names of states or use abbreviations? Does an ellipsis have three dots or four? What’s an ellipsis? What’s the difference between a mantle and a mantel, between capital and capitol? The Chicago Manual will answer all of your questions, no matter how obscure the topic. Example: It used to be accepted practice to insert two spaces after the punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. According to CMS, “In typeset matter, one space, not two (in other words, a regular word space), follows any mark of punctuation that ends a sentence, whether a period, a colon, a question mark, an exclamation point, or closing quotation marks.” In my opinion, what you print from your computer qualifies as “typeset matter,” so check those spaces.

3. Cite your sources correctly. When citing sources, I continue to use the Chicago Manual of Style for printed works such as books and periodicals. When I’m citing original records, websites, online databases, and other genealogical materials, my bible is Elizabeth Shown Mill’s Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007, reprinted 2008). In addition, I use Ms. Mills’ two Quicksheets: Citing Online Historical Resources Evidence! Style (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2007) and Citing Ancestry.com Databases and Images Evidence! Style (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009). For more information on these three titles, read “Hurdling the “Brick Wall” without Landing in a Pothole (The Real Value of Source Citation): A Conversation with Elizabeth Shown Mills.” Not only does Evidence Explained cover a myriad of record formats, it provides clear sample entries for a source list, a full reference note, and subsequent reference notes for the same item.

4.  Understand the basics of copyright. Copyright law is very complicated. It is important, however, to understand the basics in order to protect your work and to respect the work of others. I recommend that you read, at the very least, the “Copyright Basics” chapter of [Sharon DeBartolo]  Carmack’s Guide to Copyright and Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005, reprinted 2007). This chapter pinpoints what is protected by copyright and what is not, the duration of copyright, and how to register your work if desired. A specific question-and-answer section discusses genealogy-specific copyright applications.

5. Read well-written genealogical periodicals and books. Reading articles that are well-written and that conform to established genealogical standards will assist you in recognizing quality writing. The Register (New England Historic Genealogical Society) and NGSQ (National Genealogical Society) are examples of excellence in genealogical journalism. Read articles even if they don’t support your immediate research objective as you will not only become familiar with quality writing, but you will learn about research methodology and analysis at the same time. In particular, find out the requirements for submitting articles to various periodicals so that you can incorporate them into your writing. One excellent source is Henry Hoff’s Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: A Guide to Register Style and More (NEHGS, 2002). In addition, NGSQ provides editorial advice on its website.

6. Read books about writing family histories and memoirs. You are not alone in writing about your family. With the increase in the popularity of family history, several books are available to help you get started – and stay on tract – throughout your writing, including Kirk Polking’s Writing Family Histories and Memoirs (Betterway Books, 1995) and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s You Can Write Your Family History (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2003, reprinted 2008). These books will help you articulate why you want to write, how to identify your intended audience and much more that will help you write effectively and efficiently.

7. Have fun! Writing should not be a chore. Strangely enough, grammar can be fun. Check out two books by Lynn Truss: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Approach to Punctuation (Gotham, 2006) and The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes! (Putnam Juvenile, 2007). Both books are entertaining ways to absorb some grammatical nuances.

My conviction that if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing well was more eloquently stated by John Sheffield, the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby  (1647-1721), statesman, author and patron of poet John Dryden who wrote: “Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well.”

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